For most people, giving a speech to a group of people is right up there as one of the most intensely stressful experiences that they could imagine. There is an inherent fear connected to it that can, in extreme cases, cause severe anxiety, illness, and trauma. However, when you put it in to perspective with other fearful manifestations it hardly registers. I mean, if you have a fear of spiders then at some primal level at least certain spiders can kill you. The same with snakes, heights, transport and strangers. But with public speaking, the worst thing that can possibly happen to a presenter is that they are mocked by a group. The fear of being judged, and evaluated, by a mass of people seems to be enough to scare the pants off of them.
For over twenty years research has been carried out to try and understand this phenomenon, and to try and make some sense of why this is so debilitating. The Trier Social Stress Test has been developed in order to measure participants stress levels when put in to the position of having to prepare and present a speech in front of people. The test, which is straight-forward, invokes a stressful reaction in most of it’s victims. So this poses a question of it’s own; why are some people affected a lot more by the pressure of talking in front of a group of people, and yet others can demonstrate almost a super version of themselves whilst in the same position. An example of the latter would be the transformation that takes place within most comedians on stage, who off-stage are often quiet, introverts.
The nature of the Trier Social Stress Test at least directs us towards one of the main culprits of the stress that is caused. People are adversely affected by the thought that they are being judged and evaluated by an external body. So, what can you do about this? The best way is to practice talking in front of people, and I know this sounds obvious but it is amazing how little of it some people do.
When we are young children we are often put in to positions of reading in front of the class, or show-and-tell, and we experience for the first time the public derision in what we are saying. Nothing is more vicious than a Primary School-aged child who senses a vulnerability, and obviously at that age children are not mature enough to think how they would feel in the same situation. So the speaker is laughed at, and this triggers an emotional response unconsciously which is stored up, and all subsequent performances then build on this emotional response. At a certain age at school, public speaking tends to become less common, when focus turns to the completion of written exams instead. So the practice of speaking in front of people is lost and buried way back in the unconscious mind, as something that is purely remembered as a terrifying experience that should be avoided at all cost. This, in turn, is also reinforced by the common, public reaction that you should be nervous.
As you move in to adulthood, two things happen; in most careers the higher up you go the more you need to address groups of people, and secondly there are more social situations which demand public speaking, i.e weddings, christenings, get togethers etc. At this stage the whole thing is too late. If you are nervous about giving speeches then you will only become more nervous each time you present, and this is then the classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re nervous, which makes the audience uncomfortable, and therefore they are disengaged, which means that you don’t feel the love coming back from them, this causes you to shrink further in to your notes clasped in your sweaty hands, which makes the crowd get restless, and then by the time it finishes everybody is just glad it’s over and nobody can really remember a thing you said.
So, the best thing to do is to practice as much as possible, talking in front of groups of people. Raising toasts to friends and family, and volunteering for any opportunity you can find to stand up and be heard. The fact is, as adults, all audiences want you to be great. They are there to listen to you and they want that to be as entertained as possible, they want to be made to feel comfortable and not end up pitying you. There is a lot of work that you can do with a trained coach to conquer nerves and improve confidence, this will make you begin to improve, and once that happens the trend will continue. Remember this; great speakers enjoy speaking in front of people, so smile and enjoy it, and bring them with you.
For help with public speaking and presentation skills please get in touch with me at clear lantern and become a fantastic speaker.